Faculty members go the extra mile to give students extraordinary study abroad experiences
Joseph Wheeler invited 16 students — and a million of his closest friends — to stroll through his state-of-the-art solar-powered living room in the middle of the Dubai desert. From touch-screen control panels, automatic sliding doors, and electrochromic glass that tints dark during times of extreme heat, visitors got an up-close look at the future of sustainable living.
Wheeler is an architecture professor in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design and lead faculty member of FutureHAUS, which in 2018 won the Solar Decathlon Middle East, a global competition aimed at accelerating research on building sustainable, grid-connected solar homes.
Following that victory, Wheeler and his team were invited to bring the house back to the United Arab Emirates and display it as part of Expo 2020 Dubai, the World’s Fair. Delayed by the pandemic until October 2021, the six-month-long expo attracted more than 24 million visitors. Organizers hailed it as the biggest event to be held in the Arab world.
“How could we say no?” Wheeler said. “This was a chance not only to showcase the cutting-edge research we’re doing at Virginia Tech, but also to give students this amazing opportunity to experience the region’s architecture and culture.”
His students helped lead tours of the house to more than a million visitors. They also had the chance to experience the entire expo and its 192 country pavilions. And they were encouraged to explore further.
“They experienced the desert and the real culture of Dubai, not just the tourist center,” Wheeler said. “We also had trips to Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Jordan, and Greece. The students — many of whom had never before left the U.S. — really got to study some of the world’s most incredible buildings and experience people from a wide variety of cultures.”
Across Virginia Tech, faculty members such as Wheeler are going the extra mile to open the world to students and ensure they have access to similarly amazing study abroad opportunities.
“Virginia Tech is committed to providing high-impact and immersive study abroad experiences that afford a greater understanding of the world’s peoples, cultures, economies, and environments and prepare graduates for the challenges of international citizenship,” said Theresa Johansson, director of the Global Education Office, which supports more than 60 faculty-led programs. She and her team work with academic and student services offices across the university to make study abroad as accessible and as academically relevant as possible for all Hokies.
“Faculty members who lead programs abroad really take to heart our mission of global engagement, discovery, and service, and they go to extraordinary lengths to make sure students have exceptional opportunities for experiential learning,” Johansson said. “Not only are they teaching course content, but they’re often acting as knowledgeable cultural guides.”
Into the fields of Cambodia
Take Jessica Agnew, associate director of CALS Global in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Last month, she led a graduate student and four undergraduates on a trip to Cambodia to meet with representatives from the World Food Programme and lay the groundwork for a study on the impact of introducing fortified rice in the country. They examined how the rice could be marketed and assessed what economic gains the country might see if the fortification could be done on a national scale.
Traveling into the countryside beyond the capital, Phnom Penh, was critical to broadening the scope of perspectives they were able to hear from, Agnew said. “Only so much learning can happen inside the classroom. Critical and innovative thinking requires experiencing a variety of contexts, cultures, and environments. Getting to really understand the experiences of people we don’t get to interact with on a daily basis is something the students really appreciated.”
She said she knows such international experiences can be cost-prohibitive. But thanks to an investment from the college and a generous contribution from the Samuels Family Enrichment Fund, the students’ costs were covered.
“CALS Global created this competitive experiential learning program to reward students who are not only committed to their education but also willing to learn, explore, and engage with new cultures. We anticipate such high-impact experiences will create deep learning and catalyze opportunities for students after graduation,” Agnew said.
Johansson, too, knows study abroad costs can add up. “Our office works hard to clear any hurdles that might keep students from considering a study abroad experience,” she said.
For example, the First-Year Passport Project enables Pell grant-eligible students to obtain a U.S. passport at no cost. Participants also have access to special workshops, peer mentors, and specialized advising sessions. “In many cases, the support students need most is a trusted advisor with the knowledge and understanding to walk them through the process,” Johansson said.
Dementia care in Europe
The Global Education Office also supports faculty members in their efforts to create new internationally focused courses and programs.
Joanna Culligan, an instructor of human development and family science who works with the Engagement Center for Creative Aging, received such assistance to develop a summer study abroad program examining how different countries address dementia care.
“Generally speaking, there are not a lot of great programs domestically supporting people experiencing dementia,” she said. “We wanted to look at some of the stellar programs they have in other countries and give students an opportunity to compare the policies and practices. We hope this program helps guide and inspire the next generation of gerontology enthusiasts.”
A grant from the Global Education Office allowed Culligan to scout sites ahead of time, tour care communities in several countries, and meet with potential partners.
Last summer, 11 students participating in the four-week International Dementia Care program were able to reap the benefits of that work. They visited multiple programs and dementia-friendly communities in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom, interacting with staff members and individuals experiencing dementia.
They started with two weeks at the Steger Center for International Scholarship, Virginia Tech’s European Living-Learning Center in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. Students got to spend time with Swiss residents who attend a senior center about 10 minutes away.
“Even though most of our students didn’t speak Italian, they found nonverbal ways to engage with the participants,” she said. “Some of the participants, for example, taught the students how to play a card game — and some of those games got pretty heated, with a lot of expressive communication.”
Culligan said she watched as a woman asked one of the students learning to play the card game if she could braid her hair. Another participant brought out his accordion and taught the students songs.
“The students were quite frankly blown away by the things they saw, by seeing accessibility in action,” Culligan said. “They got to see different ways of working with older adults and learn about how applied research can help people.”
For the Fourth of July, students invited the participants for a special celebratory meal at the Steger Center. “It was incredible to see everyone transcending language barriers to encourage communication and participation. You could feel a real sense of community,” Culligan said.
Bats in Brunei
Rolf Müller, professor of mechanical engineering, estimates he’s taken more than 80 students abroad since 2010.
Müller has been studying the biosonar and motion behaviors of bats for more than two decades. This year, a motion capture tunnel he and his students designed went online in Brunei, a small equatorial country with a diverse and abundant bat population. Five engineering students from Virginia Tech joined students from several other universities to set up the tunnel and put it to work. They hope to use it to form a more complete picture of what bat flight looks like down to the smallest movements.
“I try to offer students unique interdisciplinary research experiences at the intersection of engineering and life science,” Müller said. “I hope that the engineering students will have a much better understanding of what biological model systems can do for engineering if they have observed them in the field as well as in the laboratory.”
He said he places an emphasis on involving local students and faculty as well as integrating social and cultural programs so that Virginia Tech students also have a chance to develop intercultural competence.
“Being in a foreign environment provides much more opportunity to connect and bond than would be possible in a known environment, where students and faculty each have their social circles and routines. We are able to explore the new environment together — including the work environment, outdoor activities, and cultural activities.”
That’s at the heart of being globally oriented and internationally connected university, Johansson said. “By providing these extraordinary international experiences, our faculty members are helping students learn how to be good global citizens. Their students experience novelty and adventure while gaining a multicultural perspective on the world, learning to understand and appreciate differences, and becoming more compassionate humans.”